Federal law enforcement mounted an aggressive response towards nationwide protests for racial justice but failed to respond to credible threats from white nationalist groups ahead of January 6, according to documents obtained by CREW. While components of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security launched a robust interagency response to racial justice protests, they failed to communicate or act effectively on credible threats of violence ahead of the insurrection.

On June 4, 2020, Custom and Border Protection’s Law Enforcement Safety and Compliance Directorate (LESC) implemented an “all hands on deck” response to racial justice protests in Washington, D.C. by increasing the number of officers and supplying rifles and unspecified “less-lethal devices.”

But when it was suggested that the same agency could provide support to the Federal Protective Service two days ahead of January 6, CPB leadership assigned LESC to only provide support “as needed” on an “‘off-sight’ [sic] standby status.” Approximately three hours after rioters breached the Capitol, senior DHS staff finally scrambled to figure out what support it could lend the Capitol Police. And contrary to its response to racial justice protests, DHS apparently curtailed its assistance, noting that law enforcement components including CBP, Transportation and Security Administration and Coast Guard Investigative Service were “non-crowd control trained so perhaps of limited value.” 

DOJ took a similar posture. On May 31, 2020, amidst nation-wide, and largely peaceful, protests for racial justice, then-Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the agency planned to mobilize its regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force partners to put a stop to “riots and domestic terrorism” that he claimed was being perpetrated by Antifa. Both DOJ and DHS launched a coordinated major campaign in cities across the country, bringing in CPB, Federal Protective Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to protect federal properties and provide law enforcement support. That support included hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance by CBP drones and other air units in 15 cities which DHS then shared with other federal agencies and local police departments. Emails between staff at DOJ and DHS reveal coordinated efforts to gather evidence of damage to federal properties, which Barr often cited as a justification for the ongoing federal response and  deployments.

The federal law enforcement response leading up to insurrection could not have been more different. A report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found that “neither the FBI nor DHS deemed online posts calling for violence at the Capitol as credible.” HSGAC concluded further that “[a] key contributing factor to the tragic events of January 6 was the failure of the Intelligence Community to properly analyze, assess, and disseminate information to law enforcement regarding the potential for violence and the known threats to the Capitol and the Members present that day.”

One group that DHS should have taken a closer look at was the Proud Boys who, as of December 30, 2020, were named on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremist groups due in part to their leaders’ role in organizing the deadly white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The group has a long history of violence, including attacking protestors with bear mace and clubs on at least two occasions in Portland, Oregon following the death of George Floyd. DHS still determined that there was “no indication of civil disobedience” from the group on January 6.

DHS records show that the group said they would not wear their traditional black and yellow attire on January 6 in favor of dressing “incognito” and planned to “turn out in record numbers.” It’s hard to imagine how a reasonable person could conclude that the Proud Boys going incognito to “spread across downtown DC” would not result in civil disobedience, at minimum. 

Even as threats started to pour into the nation’s capital, federal law enforcement focused on potential racial justice protests elsewhere. Secret Service documents obtained by CREW include an email from the day before the insurrection to Capitol Police detailing possible officer safety issues for the following day. A local field office relayed intelligence describing plans of people coming to the District with tactical gear and weapons to “incite violence” on January 6. The Secret Service was aware of posts on Facebook and Parler publicly calling for “open season,” “no mercy” and “war” against D.C. police for being “traitors” and “the enemy of the people.

The same day the Secret Service sent this troubling information, the National Guard dispatched 851 personnel to Kenosha, Wisconsin in anticipation of the district attorney’s decision whether to prosecute the officers who shot Jacob Blake. Days later the mission was scrapped when no violence erupted following the decision not to charge any officers. 

At the same time the National Guard was anticipating civil disturbances in Kenosha on January 6, DHS’s National Operations Center reported “no major incidents of illegal activity” in the District though rioters had already begun to attack the Capitol.

Leadership from the agencies involved in these responses must justify why their agencies were so “restless” to respond to protests for racial and social justice but were so ineffective in their response to the very real threat to the Capitol. The American public deserves answers and Congress must get the truth and ensure this never happens again. 

Protests for racial justice documents

Header photo by Rosa Pineda under a Creative Commons license.

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